Free Press Prize Nominations to Sakit Zahidov and TURAN Information Agency | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Free Press Prize Nominations to Sakit Zahidov and TURAN Information Agency

(30/10-2006) The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Human Rights House Foundation have nominated satirical journalist Sakit Zahidov (from Azadlik) and TURAN Information Agency from Azerbaijan as candidates for the Promotional Reward of The Freedom of Expression Foundation Young Press of Russia.

Nominations from Azerbaijan

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Human Rights House Foundation hereby nominate satirical journalist Sakit Zahidov Sakit Zahidov Sakit Zahidov Sakit Zahidov and TURAN Information Agency TURAN Information Agency TURAN Information Agency TURAN Information Agency from Azerbaijan as candidates for the Promotional Reward of The Freedom of Expression Foundation Young Press of Russia.

Situation of the press freedom in Azerbaijan

Since Ilham Aliyev came to power succeeding his father in 2003, journalists and media outlets have
experienced disturbing deterioration of the already weak press freedom.

The incident that has drawn most attention is the murder murder murder murder of Elmar Huseynov, the editor of the weekly newspaper Monitor, on 2 March 2005. The case remains unsolved; allthough there is no doubt the murder was premeditated, and most likely a result of Huseynov’s relentless writings in the Monitor. Huseynov became well known in Azerbaijan through his quality investigating journalism, and he had written countless articles revealing corruption and power abuse, often involving members of the government and close relatives of the president directly. The death of Huseynov has been compared to the killing of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze in Ukraine five years earlier.

A year and a half since Huseynov’s killing, the situation for press freedom has worsened.

Azerbaijani media is kept under control by the authorities through violence and harassment violence and harassment violence and harassment violence and harassment against journalists, as well as by financial and administrative means financial and administrative means financial and administrative means financial and administrative means.

The attacks on the independent press in Azerbaijan in 2006 are illustrated by countless lawsuits lawsuits lawsuits lawsuits brought forth
by government officials against newspapers and editors as well as physical attacks physical attacks physical attacks physical attacks on a journalist from “Azadlig”, Fikret Huseynli, and the editor of the Bizim Yol newspaper, Bahaddin Haziyev. Journalists critical towards the regime are deprived of their salaries deprived of their salaries deprived of their salaries deprived of their salaries and independent and opposition newspapers lose income lose income lose income lose income from advertisements. The independent press also experiences hampered printing and distribution hampered printing and distribution hampered printing and distribution hampered printing and distribution, and receive unreasonable fines unreasonable fines unreasonable fines unreasonable fines as the result of libel and tax cases instigated against them. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries of the world and President Ilham Aliyev has stated that the fight against corruption is a high priority, any publication about corruption among state employees is considered libel and punished strictly in a court system far from independent.

As far as we know, no journalist or media outlet from Azerbaijan has received important international prizes in recent years. Under the current situation, an appreciation from Gerd Bucerius-Förderpreis/Freedom of Expression Foundation would be highly appreciated by all the courageous media workers and a welcome contribution to support independent press and bring international attention to the press situation in the country

Nominee 1: Sakit Zahidov, journalist and poet in the Azerbaijan daily newspaper “Azadliq”

Sakit Zahidov, under his pen name “Mirza Sakit”, is a well known a satirical writer. In the past three years his critical poems have appeared in "Azadlig," "Bizim Yol," and "Baki Bulvari" newspapers. His poems have been extremely critical towards corrupt officials and high-ranking leaders in Azerbaijan. Sakit Zahidov Salim oglu, was born in 1959, in Gurdtapa Village of the Shamakhi Region of Azerbaijan. After completing the eighth grade in 1975, he was accepted to Baku Technical Trade School No. 3. In 1978 he graduated from the trade school with a typesetter certification. From 1978-80 he served in the military in Tallinn, Estonia. After military service he returned to Baku and worked for several years in a school. In 1983 moved to Russia, and through 1990 he worked in various cities of Russia. In 1990, Zahidov returned to Azerbaijan and settled in Baku.

Since 2003 Zahidov has been working with “Azadliq” Newspaper. He writes lyrical poems and also prepares travel pieces. Although Zahidov always wrote poems, even in his childhood, they were never published until he started working with “Azadlig” Newspaper. In April 2005 a book of Zahidov’s poems was published. One week prior to his arrest, Zahidov published another book of poems from 2006.

Sakit Zahidov has been married to his wife Rena since 1983, and together they have five children; Zulfiyye (1984), Amina (1988), Ulviyya (1990), Gulnar (1994) and Jahandar (1996). Zahidov is the sole breadwinner of his family and suffers from heart problems, which have worsened since his imprisonment.

Sakit Zahidov was arrested on June 23 of this year, charged with possession of illegal drugs with intent to sell. Zahidov, himself, has refused the accusations and stated that the drugs were planted on him, to punish him for criticizing authorities. During the court hearing, the prosecution changed the drug dealing charge against Zahidov to a drug use charge, as they were unable to provide any evidence that Zahidov dealt drugs. On October 4 he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment. He was found guilty of article 234.1 of Azerbaijan's Criminal Code (possession of narcotics for personal use). Zahidov claimed openly in court that orders for his arrest came from the top. "Representatives of the authorities said in public that it is necessary to get rid of me," said Zahidov.

During the imprisonment period, Sakit Zahidov was able to publish 10 satirical poems in “Azadlig” newspaper. The final statement of Sakit Zahidov in court reflected his will to continue to struggle for human rights and democracy against the dictatorship of Azerbaijan. He underlined that he had continued to write satirical poems during the trial in prison. "“I am sure that I will continue to unmask the corruptness of this regime. I am sure that sooner or later they will be forced to justify to the people the murders of Elmar Huseynov and Alim Kazimli, and the attacks on Fikret Huseynli, Bahaddin Haziyev and others. I believe that Azerbaijan's authorities want to destroy all traces of dissidence in the country, and then the misappropriation of oil profits and the falsification of elections will become much easier.”"

Human rights defenders, journalists and representatives from embassies and international institutions, such as Reporters without Borders, the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, and other international organizations, monitored the trial. They concluded that the charges against Sakit Zahidov must be false and called on the government to immediately release Zahidov. Reporters without Borders wrote: “By finding this well-known and completely innocent journalist guilty of article 234.1 of Azerbaijan's Criminal Code (possession of narcotics for personal use), Azerbaijan's government takes yet another cruel step in contradiction with the values of freedom of expression, while Joel Simon, Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists said, "The jailing of Sakit Zahidov comes amid a widespread crackdown on opposition and independent journalists in Azerbaijan. We view this drug conviction with extreme skepticism given Zahidov's history of critical journalism."

“Azadlig" Newspaper is known as one of the most vocal opposition newspapers in the Azerbaijan. The paper is connected to the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, and its editor is Zahidov’s brother. Friday October 13, on of the latest attempts to suppress the opposition newspaper unfolded - Azerbaijan's Economic Court passed a decision to evict all occupants of the building at 33 Khagani St. in Baku. This building belongs to "Azadlig" newspaper, but it also houses TURAN News Agency, another nominee. Azer Akhmedov, general director of Azadlig daily, said that the building was handed over to “Azadlig” daily "for free and limitless use" in 1992, in accordance with a decree of Baku's Mayor. The government points out that a formal contract of the newspaper’s possession was never signed, and has demanded that all occupants of 33 Khagani St. vacate the premises and that "Azadlig" Newspaper be fined approximately $25,000, bringing the grand total of fines against this publication to nearly $200,000.

The situation of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan has reached a critical and dangerous point. As Zahidov mentioned in his statement, he is not the only suppressed journalist. During and after Azerbaijan's November 2005 parliamentary elections, countless journalists were beaten and threatened. Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) co-rapportuer on Azerbaijan Andres Herkel compared the situation in Azerbaijan with the situation in Belarus in August 2006.

Compared with the neighboring countries, the quality of the journalism in Azerbaijan is not very high. Nevertheless we believe that Sakit Zahidov deserves to get the prize, as a representative not only of the Azadlig newspaper, but as a symbol of the independent press in Azerbaijan.

At present, Sakit Zahidov’s lawyer has filed a claim in Azerbaijan’s Appeals Court to have the verdict against his client overturned. And the worldwide campaign calling for Zahidov’s release continues.

Zahidov himself has vowed to continue writing poems and to continue his struggle against corruption in Azerbaijan even from prison. In his final statement to the court, he called for “all citizens of the country to carry out a peaceful struggle for the development of democracy, freedom of expression and human rights in Azerbaijan.” On Oct. 19 he celebrated his 48th birthday in prison.

List of publications: In Azeri language only, as they have never been translated into English.

1. The poem “Hannibal's Dignity”
Hannibal refers to Heydar Aliyev. In the poem Zahidov's notes how there are statues, monuments and pictures of Heydar Aliyev everywhere. He writes that a lot of money is spenton this propaganda, but most people are angered by this, and believe that the money could be better spent on other projects. When people sleep they even see statues of "Hannibal" in dreamland and heaven.

2. The poem "Heydar's Herd of Officials"
In the poem Zahidov writes that the government has a vendetta against its own people. The people die of hunger, while government officials are wealthy and have no conscience. Later on the poem, he calls the herd of officials rabid.

3. The poem "Inqilab,"
Inqlab” translates into "Revolution." This poem states that there is only one remaining way to bring down the "Communist-YAP (Yeni Azerbaycan Party)" regime, a revolution. Zahidov writes that the dynastic regime has lost its dignity, there for the people need to rise up and show that they are courageous and worthy. He calls on people to along with participating in weddings and other social events, to participate in a revolution. This poem was written prior to the Nov. 2005 parliamentary elections, when some people had anticipated that YAP might be dethroned through a democratic election/non-violent revolution as regimes in Georgia and Ukraine were removed.

4. The entitled "Jahannamdan Maktub"
"Jahannamdan Maktub" translates into "Letter from Hell." It is written in the form of a letter from former President Heydar Aliyev to his son incumbent president Ilham. In the letter "Heydar" writes that even in hell he is mixed up in corruption, and because of this he was thrown into an oil well. In addition "Heydar" writes that everyday he faces court trials in hell. However he says he calls to "Ilham" and says he has no regrets and instructs his son to do the same.

Contact details:

c/o Azadliq Newspaper: 33 Khagani St. Baku, Azerbaijan, azadliq@azdata.net, Chief editor Qanimat Zahid, phone + 994 50 335 4551


Nominee II: TURAN Information Agency, Baku Azerbaijan
(www.turaninfo.com)

TURAN Information Agency was the first independent news agency created in the post soviet space. The agency was created in Baku in September 1990 by a group of journalists, and since that time has been led by Mehman Aliyev, a driving force in Azerbaijan’s media sector and civil society.

TURAN Information Agency’s mission is to provide accurate and objective information about the events in and around Azerbaijan. To achieve this TURAN offers a wide variety of products (over 20), from daily political, financial and energy bulletins, to reports on communications and highly anticipated analytical articles. The vast majority of these products are offered in real time on TURAN’s website in three languages (Azeri, Russian and English), as well as distributed in the print form. A strong factor of TURAN is also its ability to objectively analyze the current situation in a country where most reporting is either reflection the views of the government or those of the opposition. Prominent press organs throughout the world including BBC, Reuters and France Press subscribe to TURAN, along with embassies, businesses, NGOs and private individuals.

The agency covers a wide specter of fields, and provides 13 different subscription- services in addition to the website www.turaninfo.com:

  • Daily Political-Eventual bulletin
  • Daily Economic Bulletin
  • Daily Energy Bulletin
  • Finance
  • Telecommunication and information technologies
  • Transport
  • Analytical bulletin
  • Monthly economic review
  • Markets
  • Tenders
  • South Caucasian Review
  • Religion
  • Photo service

Throughout TURAN’s over 15 years of existence, the Information Agency has established itself as one of the only independent voices in a country where Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press have come under frequent fire, particularly since 2003. In particular, TURAN is known for its gritty investigative reporting, which has exposed appalling scandals in both the political and business spheres of Azerbaijan. However, this reputation does not come without a price.

Two of TURAN’s journalists have been murdered, Farhad Kerimov was killed in Chechnya in 1996 and Adil Buniyatov was killed on 17 March 1995 while covering clashes between protestors and police. Still numerous others have been the victims of vicious attacks; for example in 1997 Tapdig Farhadoglu was savagely attacked and in 2003 Emin Huseynov sustained severe spinal injuries at the hands of police, which reduced him to a Group II invalid. Mehman Aliyev himself is also the frequent target of pressure. Three days prior to the murder of prominent journalist Elmar Husenyov (2 March 2005), he was warned to be careful. And in November 2005, Aliyev’s only child, six-year-old daughter Leyla, was brutally beaten by police during a sanctioned rally in what some feel may have been a targeted attack. Leyla suffered multiple fractures in her left leg and was in rehabilitation for nearly a year. Aliyev’s sister-in-law was also injured in this incident. She suffered a fractured collarbone and spent months in treatment, before finally recovering.

In recent years TURAN has also found itself the target of an underhanded campaign by government authorities to flood the news agency market and strangle off TURAN’s financial resources. Numerous supposedly independent news agencies, which are actually funded by the government and given preferential treatment with regards to news tips and advertisements, have sprung up, creating financial hardships for TURAN. While in the western world advertisements are the lifeblood of press agencies’ income, companies in Azerbaijan are often reluctant to work with TURAN, because they fear government retribution.

Despite this Mehman Aliyev and TURAN carry on their courageous work and even have plans for growth and innovation – for example technical advances in their website and the creation of independent branches of the agency focused on specific topics. Mehman Aliyev is also co-founder of a number of press structures in Azerbaijan, including the Press Council, Yeni Nesil Journalist Union, Elmar Huseynov Foundation and Baku Press Club.

Personal data of Mehman Aliyev, Director of TURAN News Agency:

Date of Birth: 26 October 1957, Married, with one child. Educated at the Moscow State University Department of Journalism in 1988.

Employment: 1990 - present: TURAN Information Agency, Director
1993 - Presidential Apparatus Office, Public Relations Manager
1989 to 1990 - Azerinform State Information agency, contributor
1988 to 1989 - "Molodej Azerbaijana", newspaper contributor

List of sample articles in attachment, all written by Director Mehman Aliyev and published by TURAN.

1. “Azerbaijan has all resources for rapid and qualitative press development”
2. “Once again “support” by the West of freedom of mass media in Azerbaijan”
3. “European model as the basis of information of single Caucasian space”
4. “Gas manipulation of freezing country”
5. “President does not want or cannot harness black disorder of air”

Contact details

TURAN INFORMATION AGENCY:
Azerbaijan Republic, AZ1000, Baku, Khagani 33 Telephone: (99412) 598-42-26, 493-59-67 fax: (99412) 598-38-17

E-MAIL:
turan@azdata.net